What Is The Difference Between Paint Varnish and Distemper?

difference between paint varnish and distemper

Varnish and distemper are two common products used on wood and similar materials as finishes.

Understanding the difference between varnish and distemper will help you make the best-informed choice as to which one is best for the item you want to protect.

What is Varnish?

It should be noted that varnish is not a specific product, but rather the name for the appearance when it is finished.

The products or ingredients to varnish vary depending on its use, but the overall effect is one that provides a clear film that covers the surface.

In general, the varnish is a liquid resin that is designed to be applied to wood, metal, and other types of surfaces.

When the varnish dries, it creates a shiny, clear surface.

The varnish itself does not contain any coloring, so when it dries the surface should look about the same. But some varnishes come with stains that do create a different color.

It should be noted that there are differences between varnishes, paints, stains, and lacquers, but overall a varnish is a product that is designed to gloss and protect the surface.

What is Distemper Paint?

Distemper can be a liquid of past that covers the surface. Distemper paint will not only provide protection for the surface but also add a new color.

There are different types that include synthetic, watercolor, and the like, but all of them are applied wet and allowed to dry so they can become solid. 

Distemper consists of compositions that are liquid or can be transformed into a liquid state. It is applied to the surface of wood, metal, or other materials in a thin layer or coat.

The primary purpose of distemper is to protect the surface, but it also changes its appearance by adding a new color.

Varnish vs. Distemper: What is the Difference?

On the surface, there seems to be little difference as both varnish and paint distemper are used to protect surfaces.

But there are real differences in their appearance and application.

This makes it important to understand what makes varnish unique from distemper, so you can use the right one for the job.

Both varnish and distemper can be applied to the surface with a roller, brush, or spray.

Varnish is often wiped on with a cloth which is not practical with distemper.

Few other differences between these two products used in the paint industry can be understood based on the following…

1- Color:

The varnish is clear and has virtually no color. This means that when it is applied, it will not change the color of the surface.

Varnish is often used to cover and protect wood surfaces as it brings out its natural beauty.

Distemper however does add color and is not transparent. This means that when it covers a surface (like a wall), all you see is the distemper.

2- Prep:

Varnish can be applied to any surface that is dry and has been prepared by sanding or smoothing.

It is usually applied in a single layer or coat. And in most cases, it needs regular maintenance to retain the gloss.

While distemper is also applied to dry, prepared surfaces, it usually needs a primer coat first.

Without a primer coat, the paint distemper will often peel away. Once properly applied it can however be retained for 5-6 years.

3- UV Protection:

Here, distemper is generally much better compared to varnish.

Because of the pigments included in the distemper, surfaces exposed to ultraviolet or UV rays can be successfully resisted for up to ten years.

Because varnish is clear with no added pigment, it lets in considerably more UV rays and thus is only good for a year or two.

This assumes that the varnish does not include any UV protection which should be listed on the container. Otherwise, it will only last a short time.

4- Drying Time:

Distemper can dry quite quickly, often in less that an hour.

Although the distemper may take longer to dry underneath, the surface quickly dries in as little as 60 minutes or less.

Varnish takes much longer to dry, often reaching 24 hours.

This may be problematic since dust particles may gather and get stuck on the surface before the varnish hardens.

This also means that you will need to protect the item from dust particles during its drying time.

5- Best Usage:

Since varnish is meant to provide a clear transparent film of hard protective finish with no color it’s majorly used for wood finishing.

This is generally useful when you want to make the natural wood grains and tones visible.

A topcoat of varnish (over well stained and oiled wood) is also many times preferred for achieving a glossy finish and protection.

Distemper paints and stains on the other hand are opaque to translucent.

These are best suited for surfaces like walls, cement, concrete, and even wood where you do not intend to reveal the natural grains.

Related Questions:

What is the difference between resin and varnish?

While varnishes are said to be a blend of different resins, oil, and other volatile solvents, its not the same as epoxy resin.

The main difference between an epoxy resin and varnish lies in their consistency and thickness of the layer when dried.

Epoxy resin leaves back a nicer, thick surface when cured while a surface layered with varnish appears to be paper-thin.

What is the difference between stain and varnish?

Unlike varnish that remains as a clear glossy finish on the outside of your surface, stains penetrate deep into the wood to provide a colored finish.

Experts many times prefer to varnish over stained wood surfaces for a better finish and long-lasting protection from the natural elements when applied on the fences, decking areas, and patios.

What is the difference between lacquer and varnish?

Although both varnish and lacquer are known to provide a good glossy finish to the surface the basic difference lies in the sheen levels they offer.

While varnishes tend to produce a semi-gloss finish, lacquers will provide a more durable high gloss sheen that may range to ultra-matte.


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